Thursday, January 20, 2011

Remembrance, Yet Again

I lost a friend.

The theme of this year for me is - death.

I lost four people I knew closely in 19 days. This includes my brother, my longstanding political mentor and finally, PRC, as he was popularly known, an ex-colleague, ex-friend (we drifted apart) but most importantly, the person who changed my life.

Without PRC, I would possibly be a company man today, warming some pointless chair in a name-heavy organization in one of the Indian cities. I would live the life scripted for me - built around the cycles of job, mortgage and pensions. I shall possibly be happier, submerged in the ignorance about the possibilities of life. I lived that script once upon a time, but can't any longer imagine what it would be like to go back. In a way, he helped me to free myself, forever.

I was always a dreamer. But in 1998, I had a good job. Things were going well for me. I was married, got a decent raise, a promotion was around the corner; my mentor and boss was very supportive, and she was laying out a carefully constructed career path in a very successful company ahead of me. I understood the training business, earned respect from partners and colleagues, gained visibility within the big-company bureaucratic maze. I was comfortable with number crunching and was articulate, and ended up being a sort of a rising star in the provincial small pond environment of a regional office. Everything was scripted, ready to fall in place.

Except for Internet. I was an early adopter. It was only a slow and expensive dial-up connections, a painful geeky plaything those days; but I had these random email friends in America who I regularly corresponded with. I read Fast Company, an yet unheard of journal in India. A girl I regularly corresponded with was excited about these 'cute little software packages' called Flash and Fireworks, and convinced me Macromedia was the future. However, I could not sell any of my ideas or excitements to my company bosses, who were expanding their computer training network in India at an amazing rate, and was told to focus on the job at hand.

The first turning point in my life was when I was told to shut up because the Senior Vice President who I was trying to convert to Internet did not think it would change what we teach in our centers. With hindsight, I should have shut up and gone home. Instead, I went and shared my frustration to a group of friends (and colleagues) who were all equally frustrated with their jobs for different reasons. This was 23rd September 1998, which I still remember because it was a birthday celebration for one of them and we all drank enormous amounts of Whiskey. And, there was this deja vu moment: PRC suddenly turning to me and saying that he was friends with one of our successful franchisees, who had the money and wanted to invest in creating a new training company.

This would be one of the many wildly optimistic moments that I would spend with him thereafter. Our first shot at business, which will eventually be funded after three months of gruelling effort, would eventually mean we would drift apart. But not before we walked out of our jobs, creating quite a stir and afterward discovering that we had been handed out a really bad deal by the investors. They indeed saw through us and bought us cheap, promising equity which never materialized, at half our previous salaries. We would make our mistakes too, like ordering £100 worth of fancy stationery on the first day of business, or recruiting pretty girls to work with us who would later cause a lot of tension between us, and would actually work for our former employer, informing them of every competitive move that we would contemplate. There were other mistakes which I would laugh at later: like ordering training tapes from America and without knowing anything about different VHS standards. But, all through this very difficult time, PRC would remain optimistic, a constant source of courage, a sort of a never say die soul, who would nudge me at moments of extreme despair and would always try to keep everyone together.

Eventually, however, I walked out of the business, but the business we set up would successfully run for a decade (it still exists in some diminished form today, run by one of the founding partners) and the three people who stayed with it would make significant amount of money out of it. I walked out as I objected to various issues, not knowing that these were usual defense mechanisms of a start-up business. A database was stolen from our former employers, which I resented to, and blamed PRC for doing such a thing. However, this database was the key for him to secure the funds that we did (I mistakenly assumed that I charmed the investors). The investors demanded the database as a part of the deal, and PRC risked himself to secure it. In a way, he knew what needed to be done, and did it; I was too full of myself and was left to quibble on the finer ethical points.

However, the action orientation, without much regard to impact, caught up with him later. I walked out of the business in July 1999, at the precise moment when the company started making money. An ethical quibble again: One of the partners secured a contract with a Singapore-based software company which promised to recruit 80 software engineers from us, and we went out to advertise a 'job guaranteed' training programme, which was first of its kind in India (many such scams would follow later). I never believed it was right and objected and left (half forced out by the investors, I would think, who thought I was objecting to a brilliant idea). Indeed, the company would make a lot of money in the next few months, but the whole proposition would go down in flames afterward when the jobs would fail to materialize. The court cases filed by the students would be 'handled' by a combination of better lawyers, a few clauses in the contract (which required the students to attend 100% of the classes and secure a certain percentage of marks to be eligible) and political influence that these investors had, and I would eventually feel vindicated by this sordid affair. But I could never decide whether PRC bought into this scheme out of sheer wickedness that I blamed him of, or his usual, rather blind, optimism. With hindsight, I would think it was the latter.

Afterward, the company would shift away from Internet Training that we set it up for, and start offering distance learning programmes from universities. Again, they were ahead of the curve in this, and I would think they were one of the first private companies in India to do so. By then, I was running a rival company next door, which was all about high quality certified Internet training. I never considered the idea of distance learning programmes, because, to me, those were shoddy and just short of a scam, yet again. However, again, PRC and my former associates would make a prodigious amount of money, whereas my cutting edge company made only a slender profit, forcing me to sell off my stakes in a few years and leave India altogether.

Looking back, I know that I lost. I was far too idealistic, while business is cut-throat, practical and real. I insisted I was doing the right thing, but the environment allowed 'wrong' things to be done (like promising students overseas jobs) and I could do very little to sway investors seeking short term returns. Business is about taking opportunities; I was too much in love with my idea of a top-of-the-line Internet training company to realize that market was not yet ready (the market eventually emerged only after all the big players entered the game). I indeed learned all these lessons with time, and today know that a balance of idealism and market-responsiveness is crucial in any business. I know I was right in insisting on good conduct; but know that one has to work within the environment. PRC failed me in some of these areas, but I should have been more humble and should have tried to strike a balance between our respective paths rather than walking out.

This is a period of my life I never talk about. I have wiped it out from my personal history, and leave a six month unexplained gap in my life while I tell my story. I always considered this period to be a failure. I did not want to maintain any of the relationships from this period, though rekindled some of the friendships fairly recently. But this moment of his departure suddenly brings back memories of those months, intense, unforgettable, unhappy but full of possibilities, to my mind. Whatever happened, I would not be what I am without PRC and those experiments in entrepreneurship. However, I never had a chance to reconcile with him and thank him properly.

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